Tiffany Smith

Tiffany Smith: Redefining Incarceration Through the Arts

MFA Photography, Video and Related Media alum, Tiffany Smith is utilizing art to explore notions of displacement and identity through collaborative experience. One of Smith's latest projects takes place at Recess Assembly, an artist-led program designed as an alternative to incarceration for teens and young adults who are caught up in the justice system.

In a recent interview published through SVA's ContinuED newsletter, Smith says:

"I worked with the youth more directly and over a longer period of time than I have in the past. I was able to get to know them more personally and develop closer bonds...The impact for a young person seeing someone who looks like them, who understands the circumstances they've come from, and exemplifies how to successfully sustain a career as an artist is immeasurable and increasingly necessary."

Installation view of Tiffany Smith’s “A Moment in the Sun”

Installation view of Tiffany Smith’s “A Moment in the Sun”

Tiffany Smith is an interdisciplinary artist from the Caribbean diaspora who works with photography, video, installation, and design to create photographic portraits, site responsive installations, user engaged experiences, and assemblages focused on identity, representation, cultural ambiguity, and displacement. Using plant matter, design and home decor elements, pattern and costuming as cultural signifiers, visual references from an array of multi-cultural influences, derived from her upbringing between Miami, Florida, Nassau, Bahamas, and Jamaica inform images and installations that examine their subject’s individual narratives. Smith’s constructed temporary habitats serve to articulate cultural subjectivities that oscillate between the roles of visitor and native, mirroring the ambiguous cultural space that her subjects occupy. Smith’s practice centers on what forms and defines communities of people color, in particular; how they are identified and represented, and how they endure.

To view the full interview with Smith, visit ContinED online.

Portrait of Recess Assembly team during public family photo day (credit: Tiffany Smith)

Portrait of Recess Assembly team during public family photo day (credit: Tiffany Smith)

New Work by Alum, Tiffany Smith Presented at Bronx Calling: the Fourth AIM Biennial at The Bronx Museum of the Arts

Now in its fourth cycle, Bronx Calling: The Fourth AIM Biennial features the work of seventy-two emerging artists from the 2016 and 2017 classes of the Bronx Museum’s Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program. AIM provides professional development resources to emerging artists living and working in the New York metropolitan area. The exhibition is organized by Aylet Ojeda Jequin, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana; and the Bronx Museum’s Christine Licata, Director of Community and Public Programs; and, Heather Reyes, independent curator. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog.

Participating Artists: Seyi Adebanjo, Constanza Alarcon-Tennen, Francheska Alcantara, Amanda Alfieri, Setare Arashloo, Sabrina Barrios, Milcah Bassel, Laura Bernstein, Leo Castaneda, Kiran Chandra, Jesse Chun, Clare Churchouse, Maya Ciarrocchi, Lionel Cruet, Craig Damrauer, Sophia Dawson, Rose DeSiano, Luba Drozd, Carrie Elston Tunick, Dolores Furtado, Dhanashree Gadiyar, Ivan Gaete, Ana Garces Kiley, Pablo Garcia, Dakota Gearhart, Michelle Gevint, Naima Green, Uraline Septembre Hager, Kathie Halfin, Bang Geul Han, Amber Heaton, Robert Hernandez, Chika, Sara Jimenez, Merritt Johnson, Dominika Ksel, Stephanie Lindquist, Tammy Kiku Logan, Lulu Meng, Estefani Mercedes, Coralina Meyer, Kyle Meyer, Joiri Minaya, Pablo Montealegre, Shayok Mukhopadhyay, Jasmine Murrell, Zahra Nazari, Christie Neptune, Brandon Neubauer, Ana Penalba, Nestor Perez-Moliere, Anna Pinkas, Gustavo Prado, Elise Rasmussen, David Rios-Ferreira, Sarah Sagarin, Annesofie Sandal, Giovana Schluter, Kristine Servia, Dustina Sherbine, David Shrobe, Tiffany Smith, Vered Snear, Rachel Sydlowski, Mikolaj Szoska, Adrienne Tarver, Rosemary Taylor, Heryk Tomassini, Ekaterina Vanovskaya, Alisha Wessler, Doohyun Yoon, Jayoung Yoon

Bronx Calling: The Fourth AIM Biennial

July 22, 2017 to October 22, 2017

An opening reception will be held in conjunction with the museum's Summer Season Open House on Thursday, July 27 from 6pm to 8pm


       A Woman, Phenomenally   Tiffany Smith      


            © Tiffany Smith  


     When my family came to America in 1989, I arrived with confidence that my status as a citizen assured me a place in the society I was entering. I had no concept of the challenges to be faced in defining my identity as a modern American woman. As a child I watched Miss America and Miss USA pageants from our island home in The Bahamas with wonder, naively dreaming of growing up to become an archetype of beauty and grace. I would scan the contestants to find the one who represented a reflection of myself. Though I never quite found her, I remained unflinching in the belief that my adult self would be more than capable of elbowing out the competition to win the crown. Before coming to the States as a young girl, I had no real experience with being viewed as different or cast into the role of “Other.” I had no idea that the chances of my experiences and ideals of beauty being viewed as typical would be, at the least, a formidable challenge, and at best, an insurmountable goal. 
 Within the social and political climate into which I entered, I could never be Miss America. I was ready for America, but she was not ready for me. So began my attempt to define an identity that would embrace my multi­cultural upbringing, assert my multi-ethnic makeup, and oscillate between “visitor” and “native” in a battle of the pressure to assimilate and the desire to retain allegiance to specific cultural practices and definitions of beauty. 
 A Woman, Phenomenally explores the power of images and their influences on the formation of individual identity through the experiences of individuals descended from a mixed cultural or ethnic heritage. The work aims to challenge the often exotified and stereotyped depictions of people of color through the presentation of self-authored imagery that reclaim the subject’s agency over reflections of one’s own identity. The impetus to create portraits focused on women of color comes from a desire to redefine our role within the canon of photographic representation. It is a response to a history that too often casts our bodies as props and objects of exotification, our cultural practices as anthropological novelty, and our notions of self-identification as problematic until validated through a Eurocentric view. 


            © Tiffany Smith  


     When do we begin to redefine what is considered mainstream within mass culture in an impactful manner that creates concrete shifts in collective thought? How can we harness the power inherent to the photographic medium to inform and repossess authorship of our own narrative? This project examines how cultural influences are retained in the face of geographical separation and how individual identities are formed.  My investigation of this subject began with a fascination with turn­of­the­century ethnographic images depicting women of color. The notion of being exotified resonated with me and I was compelled by what was communicated by the gaze that these images documented. Who was looking at these women and why? How did these women view themselves and what control did they possess over how they were subsequently represented? I found that more often than not, the subjects of these photographs had little power over the authorship of their own images, a condition that, to me, was not too far removed from the experiences of modern women of color and their relationship to the media.      




     Considering the visual language and function of the gaze present in these ethnographic photographs, I began to craft images that employ a contemporary visual language to respond to some of the questions these images generated. My investigations resulted in the self-portrait series For tropical girls who consider ethnogenesis when the native sun is remote, which investigates formation of identity and the power of representation through my own narrative. These experiments helped me to establish a visual language that places emphasis on color and pattern, and a mode of production that creates site-specific environments for the subject, which rely on elements of installation and set design to evoke a sense of place. The images are performative in nature as I embrace the roles of both subject and ethnographer, incorporating cultural signifiers that describe my experience with attempts to mitigate my multi­cultural identity. As I engage in performances of “the Other” I counter the objectionable gaze of the ethnographic photographs referenced with an “oppositional gaze.” In composition and visual aesthetic, the work is not shy about making its presence known; as the author of the images, I am not shy about making my opinion heard.      




     In my practice, I am repeatedly drawn to themes related to the formation of identity and communities, the role of memory (particularly in relation to notions of cultural identity), and the experience of being or performing “the other.” The criteria that guide the investigation of my subjects are typically anthropological in nature and engendered by a genuine curiosity.  Manipulating the inherent power of the photographic image, the work presents portraits that are collaborative in construction and performative in nature as the foundation of an immersive multimedia installation that creates an environment that references a domestic space through cultural signifiers extracted from the collective diasporic memory. The concept of displacement is a secondary theme that unifies the stories and experiences of the subjects depicted.  The contextualizing installation of the images includes objects that refer back to the portraits and extend the plane of the photographs into three-dimensional space. Props used within the photographs such as artificial plants and tile pieces are combined with constructed sculptural objects that mimic decorative concrete block patterns and readymade objects that reference a domestic space to create the communal environment that the portraits inhabit. The aesthetic of these objects is decidedly tropical, manifesting from my own memories of a shifting home and referencing cultural aesthetics from the Caribbean diaspora.      




 Collectively, the work functions as an altar to the living, creating a space to reflect on the depiction and experiences of the subjects with compassion and reverence, expanding concepts from my previous installation work, particularly 5 Kings. Like the work of Mickalene Thomas and Ebony Patterson, the work relies on layering of color and pattern to create a transportive environment. Rashid Johnson and Hew Locke investigate similar themes from a male perspective, and also provide context to the work.  
 The images, video, and their presentation intend to create an idealized and constructed environment for the subjects to inhabit that reference the ambiguous social space that they navigate in reality. Collectively, these elements dissect personal narratives, drawing on memories of each subject’s respective “home” to create a representation that gives each subject a degree of agency in “performing the other.”      


            © Tiffany Smith

A Woman, Phenomenally by Tiffany Smith

Within the social and political climate into which I entered, I could never be Miss America. I was ready for America, but she was not ready for me. So began my attempt to define an identity that would embrace my multi­-cultural upbringing, assert my multi-ethnic makeup, and oscillate between “visitor” and “native” in a battle of the pressure to assimilate and the desire to retain allegiance to specific cultural practices and definitions of beauty.


Faculty Member Wardell Milan in Conversation With Tiffany Smith

There’s something about the demeanor of Southern men that often seems a bit more at ease, gentler, open. Meeting Wardell Milan was a refreshing affirmation of the most positive attributes of the “Southern gentleman” archetype. He spoke to me about his background and practice, and our shared professional challenges and the intersection of our respective work. He offered insight on establishing a practice through his experience in several mediums, including painting, photography and printmaking. Following are some highlights from our chat.

Tiffany Smith:  Where are you from?

Wardell Milan: Knoxville, Tennessee. When I was asked “where you're from?,” it was that little cadence or something makes it feel like you're from somewhere in the South.


TS: Yeah, from the deep South. . .


I was born in Miami and raised in both Nassau, Bahamas, and my folks are from Jamaica and Trinidad. There is a mix of cultural influences in Miami; if anything that made me keep closer ties to the Caribbean community because that culture is very strong.

I wanted to lead with that question because it’s something I address in my work—that experience of being asked where you're from is loaded. Usually the follow up is going to be where are you really from?


WM: You can pretty much discern that after a few seconds, just in the tone of voice or tilt of the head. Depending on whom I'm talking to, I’ll say Knoxville and certain folks will be like, where? Then “Where are your people from?” People think, “Are you Dominican? . . .” “No. I'm not Puerto Rican . . .”

TS: I feel that when people don't know where to place you on the brown people scale they always say Dominican.


Tell me more about being from Knoxville.

WM: Knoxville is a medium size town and, looking back, I had a great childhood and early adulthood. Growing up in a mid size Southern City greatly aided my creativity. With the city providing a limited amount of cultural and civic diversity and stimulus, I developed a keen imagination, and the strong desire to a creator.  


TS: Your work doesn’t place your identity at the forefront. There's a lot of work by black artists that is unmistakably black and a lot of work that is not, it’s more abstract. As an artist who is representational and outwardly projects notions of identity, I'm compelled by an introverted standpoint.


WM: I've always made work that's a bit coded. I’ve used family members to make portraits, obstructing their identity in some way. For a while I really questioned abstraction and if I should be more representational of being a person of color. But I just wasn't interested in speaking about that in a very direct manner. I wanted to create narratives that were slightly autobiographical, and then about black culture, and then perhaps my mother, and also race cars! There were so many ideas I wanted to speak about, that I felt I couldn't really make work that was more about my blackness. I've questioned that, but I never felt the urge to make work that was about my culture in a pointed way. I'm a black artist but it isn't “black” art. Or is it?


TS: Why can't I just be an artist? Why do I have to be a black artist?  Not every artist makes the choice to address their identity in their work, but you should have that choice instead of being categorized as a black artist in a limiting sort of way.


WM: When I was saying that, I was thinking about writers and how often when they're writing about artists of color they say, “Tiffany Smith, black artist” or “Christine Kim, Korean artist.” It's never Sullivan Smith, white artist. There's never that classification.


TS: It can sometimes affect the way people interact with the work because they're searching for deeper references - it must be about politicizing the black body, for example. People get all hyped up on buzzwords.


WM: Maybe it's not about that at all - it's just your friend and she happens to be Asian or Indian. Somehow whenever the black or brown body is inserted it becomes political. It's the same if you think about a ballet. It could be Swan Lake but as soon as the lead dancer is black it's something else.


T:  Black Annie! Forget it.


WM: Anyone who's not a straight white man has to have a double consciousness. Thinking about W.E.B. Dubois’ ideas about double consciousness, you as a black woman have three consciousnesses—woman, black woman, and you. You're absorbing how you exist in space and in the world but you're also reaching out and trying to learn how to better maneuver. If a person doesn’t have these complexities in their consciousness then that person may not take the time to consider how, for example, a woman of color living in New York has to maneuver through life. There's a level of understanding that some people just may not have because they don't have to know. It’s about being aware of communities that aren’t so immediately you and yours.


TS: Your work allows for different reactions—it puts you on the precipice of being enticed, and at the same time being repelled because you don't want to perpetuate certain stereotypes. Particularly the “Smooth Girl” collages.


WM: I'm interested in the idea of dualism or “twoness.” I want people to be simultaneously repelled and attracted. Most people believe the tulips are really beautiful and inviting.  Which I believe they are, but what inspires me about these flowers is their history, specifically the 17th century financial collapse of the tulip trade, now popularly termed Tulip Mania.


TS: The botanical illustrations make me think about classifications—comparing how we classify people and plants and how they are represented visually. That process of creating an impression of the thing that’s not actually what it looks like.


WM:  I began making collages that developed into a body of work titled Smooth Girls after walking with my friend Isolde Brielmaier through Harlem and looking at the magazines displayed on the newsstands. The magazines tilted Smooth Girl, XXL, The Source were in prominent locations. Isolde said, “Hank [Willis Thomas] should do something with those images.” “Why would you suggest Hank? I replied. And we both laughed. As we continued walking I looking at some of the women walking through the Harlem neighborhood, we witnessed how the images illustrated in these soft porn magazines, were being re-interrupted and/or reflected on the streets. To us—these women—they didn't seem to be disrespecting themselves or asking for unwanted sexual attention, these women seemed empowered.


TS: Was it a conscious choice to just use brown women or did you ever think of using other women?

WM: For the Smooth Girls body of work, just brown women.

TS: I want to talk about coming out of a graduate program and that first post-grad year.

WM: There's no prescription. When I graduated, Leslie Hewitt and I got a large studio space in Long Island City that was relatively inexpensive. There's nothing like that in New York anymore. One thing about working in New York as a creative is there is never really a lull in momentum.


TS: That's exactly why I came here—that momentum and drive. I went to SCAD and I didn't want to move back to Miami. I knew I was going to have a difficult time staying motivated.

WM: We want to be a part of that constant kinetic energy. How does that affect the work, hopefully in a good way?


TS: It's funny. My references to tropical locations have developed since I've been away from it.  That notion of longing comes up. I didn't think I would be here this long—I thought I could last three years; I'm going on nine. It's hard to think about pulling away, but I always dream about going somewhere else.

What was your experience of residencies like Skowhegan and the Studio Museum?

WM: Skowhegan was okay—nine weeks is too long to be on a farm. When I was there, I was with William Cordova. Whenever Cordova and I and the other brown artist went to town we would get unwanted attention. Skowhegan residences would ask “Are you from Africa?” “Jamaica?” But during that time I had a breakthrough in the studio, which led me to create the dioramas and the work I continued to make.

At the Studio Museum residency I was working with Christine Kim, Thelma Golden and Naomi Beckwith. These women are amazingly smart. Also working with Titus Kaphar and Demetrius Oliver, the other two artists in residence, was a nurturing experience—full of affirmation and encouragement. I encourage artists to apply for residencies even if you don’t feel a hundred percent ready for the opportunity. It's good for certain eyes to see the work.


TS: Applying to residencies definitely helped me be prepared to discuss my work.

WM: I applied three times to the Studio Museum. The process of learning how to put together a strong grant or A.I.R application can be long and difficult. It can take a while to get the language right and describe, in a smart way, the visual content. New York is a lot different from when I finished school. When I first moved here (before attending Grad school) I live in a studio located in Bed-Stuy, worked at Zara, had an internship at Blackbook magazine and would make small drawings and paintings in the evening.


TS: I have personal challenges in networking. I'm socially awkward especially around people that I admire. I have to push myself to speak to people to build connections.

WM:  I know a lot of artists who believe they’re socially awkward and become intimidated by those they admire. If I’m at a social gathering and begin feeling uneasy or timid I tap into the performer in me–pulling out and display a more self-assured Wardell.